A conversation with Marianne Polonsky Friedman about Yona Friedman, Marianne’s father

By Tiziana Casapietra

This conversation with Marianne Polonsky Friedman is part of the project “Inside Yona Friedman’s ceramic cityconceived by Tiziana Casapietra, and made by the Savona Ceramics Museum and the Architecture and Design Dep. of the University of Genoa (DAD), Italy, with the intention to provide a virtual tour of Yona Friedman’s ceramics work “Città/City” as part of the Museum’s permanent collection. Special thanks go to the Fonds de Dotation Denise et Yona Friedman and Jean-Baptiste Decavèle for their invaluable contribution and to Hans-Ulrich Obrist for inviting Yona Friedman to the 2002 Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art during which Friedman produced his “Città”.

Tiziana Casapietra: The first thing I would like to talk to you about is your relationship with your father and the main life lessons you have learned from him. What you can share with us about those lessons. I was so much impressed by the way he was approaching our community here, his humbleness, his openness, he was very gentle and nice with all the community.
Marianne Polonsky Friedman: That is lovely, that’s a lot easier for me to talk about. What he was as a father, even tough what he was as a father was permeated by what he was as a thinker. I do not think a thinker can be a father without passing his thoughts to his children. I grew up with my parents, I was raised by my father and mother together in Paris, in the famous apartment in Boulevard Garibaldi. I think I was witness to pretty much everything that he created and thought about. Of course, as a child I did not really realized the significance of it, I did get the atmosphere and the people who were visiting. Important people kept coming to the house, to the apartment, but I did not realize it, I was a child. What was interesting, and that was a life lesson for me, one of the life lessons, is that we had also people from the street. We lived right across form the elevator subway, my father loved trains, he loved trains, and then we had the opportunity to get this apartment which was facing the elevator subway. For my father it was heaven, and we were on the 4th floor which means we were at the same level as the elevator subway. So people would pass-by in the subway and see our windows and papa had of course decorated our windows in the Friedman way. And people would literally come down the subway, I promise, and we had people come to the apartment to see it and they had seen it from the subway. That was when I was little so there was not all that security doors and codes that are now everywhere and so people could simply come up to the building, open the door, go into the hallway, figure out that was the 4th floor, they would come, they would ring the door and they would show up.

TC: But you mean foreigners? Strangers?
MPF: People we did not know, people who had taken the subway and usually it was young people, it was artistic types, and it was students and it was just, like papa said, the everyday man.  Not the average man, the everyday man, men, and women. They would show up at the door and they would say: I saw the windows from the subway, would that be ok if I look in? And my dad would say, yes of course, and he would give them a tour of the apartment and it happened all the time as long as the door was not a security door, then of course it stopped when things changed. But that was the philosophy that I learned from my father. He always said, Le Corbusier saw him in 1949 during his first trip to Europe. My father was in Israel after World War 2 he became a refugee and went to Israel because this was where the Jews go in those days, and so he went to what was then Palestine. And he always said that in 1949 he visited the first time Western Europe, France, and he wrote to Le Corbusier to ask for an appointment. My father was an unknown, a recently graduated Israeli architect, he was no-one and Le Corbusier saw him and he said, if le Corbusier could see me I can see everyone and that was his motto for the rest of his life, until here in Los Angeles when he was staying with me, he was seeing everyone. I mean we had everyone come to my house to the family house, always. Everybody had the exact same value as far as papa was concerned and I think that was a very good lesson for me also because it brought him satisfaction to know that people from various fields were interested in talking with him, and it also kept him in contact with the young. My dad had an amazing connection with young people.

TC: Yes, I understand. As I was saying I was so much impressed by the fact that when I went to see his exhibition at the MAXXI Museum in Rome he was already in his mid-90s, and I remember watching these videos and he was talking and his eyes were so alive and full of energy. They were looking like eyes of a child, full of hope…. 
MPF: …and excitement, they were constantly bubbling. 

TC: Yes, I was so much impressed by that, he was always amused by the world. 
MPF: … with everyone with absolutely everyone. He never thought of himself as a ninety-five-year-old, he was ageless.

TC: Yes, he was totally ageless. How was wondering how can a man like this protect himself from such a violent and brutal world?
MPF: He was always frail looking, but he was tough I have to tell you.

TC: That is good to hear!
MPF: We never really talked about the fact that he is tough because it was a given at home that he was tough. I knew he was tough, but if I think about it, I think he was literally vaccinated against the world. He went through the Nazi era from the age of 10 years old. He was born in 1923, in 1933 the anti-Jew legislation passed. So, from 1933 until, I would go pass the end of the war, but at least until 1949, because he was also in the Israeli independence war. So, if you think about it, for 16 years he was in a state of chaos, intolerance, violence, mass murder, fear, bombs. He was arrested by the gestapo, he was held by the gestapo for 2 months, I think after you have gone through this you are vaccinated. And you become what he became. I do not want to call him a prophet, but somebody visionary and looking towards the future which is what he did. Never looked to the past, he always looked to the next step. 

TC: So, what is the main lesson you god from him?
MPF: I got 3 main lessons, it is not in order of importance, it is the way I think about it. Yesterday was Earth Day and I posted a text on Instagram. My father had started thinking about climate change in 1973 when there was the oil crisis, he started making him think about what was coming up. He wrote his book “Energy alternatives” thinking about climate change and that was at the end of the 70s. So what I learned was perseverance and not giving up. When you have an idea that you think is the right thing to do. He was 50 years early.

TC: Yes, I know even when I read the books. 
MPF: And he realised it, which I think it is amazing. He realized it. He knew. He did not give up. He also did the “Metropole Europe”, the concept that with rapid public transport each city is going to become a suburb of another city. Brussels is going to become the suburb of Paris, London is going to become the suburb of Paris. Every city is going to be related and people are going to commute between cities for work, like a subway system. People were just making so much fun of him, and he was exactly right. Whereas Paris is now 2 hours and a half from London. You can literally go work in London. And this was again in the 70s and 80s, so that is what I have learned. I have learned that when you have an idea, and you really think it is a god one, even if people ridicule you, even if they make fun of you, you just stay straight on your path. That was one think.
I made notes about what I have learned from my father so I would remember. So the perseverance. The other thing I think we talked about, was the idea that catastrophes lead to an improvement. My dad was very interested in physics, you might have read his book “The Erratic Universe”.  He loved physics and so his idea that chaos and catastrophe lead to improvement. It is like this physics thing. There is this law of disorder. It is almost Shakespearean, chaos leads to catharsis, and I learned that from him. From a practical point of view, again, the man went through World War 2 as a Jew, the gestapo arrestation, he barely escaped, he survived by some incredible miracle, he lived as a refugee, he had untold amount of catastrophises, and yet he not only survived, but learned from the catastrophes.  So that is the second thing I have learned. I learned that catastrophes can be a lesson for our souls and usually are.
And the last very important thing that I learned from my dad. Again, no order of importance. These are things I have thought about. 
Some people know my dad as an architect, some people know my dad as a sociologist, some people know my dad as a cinema, a film maker. It is interesting that if you tell somebody, “oh yes, my dad was not only an architect, he made a movie, he invented a new animation technique, and he won the Golden Lyon in Venice in 1962 at the Biennale”, people would go, “oh really?” And that is something that my father taught me, that you do not have to be only one thing, and actually that you should be many things and it is not because you are an architect that you cannot make movies or it is not because you make movies that you cannot be interested in sociology or architecture. 
My father was really a Renaissance man, the quintessential Renaissance man. And the thing that he taught me, which is related to that, is curiosity. He said the most important think is to be curious. So curiosity, exploration, and than, ultimately, I think his architecture philosophy, because it is about process, it is not about the result, it is not about building, it is about inventing, imagining, improvising. He always said, what, it does not work, you try again, it is not the end of the world. It is something important, I think.

TC: But we live in such a world that it is going towards a totally different direction, where we always must be performative, always be better, always be at the top.
MPF: Because it is end focused, whereas my father was process focused. I think there are three things I observed at home: he knew he was right, the second thing, is I think the role of my mother is never discussed. My mother was an amazing source of support and mental strength. Whenever he kind of started doubting, she would just encourage him. My father has always said that without my mother he would not have been who he is. Incredible work ethic, my father had the most amazing work ethic. He just worked and worked. He was bubbling with ideas, he was always writing and drawing, constantly, all the time, it was not doodles, it was thought, he kept recording his thoughts. I have so much material of his notes, his writings. Taking in consideration the world around us, just last year or just the year before his died, he came up with his observation of the world that is changing so completely radically, that architecture without building I warranted now, you do not need to build cities anymore, you may heave hard him talk about it. Cities were meant from the Middle Ages to protect each other. Now we have internet, we do not need extensive freeway systems, extensive packaging of buildings, we can spread out. There is deliveries, there is the internet, there is communication… Look you are in Italy I am in Los Angeles. So, he completely saw that. His ability to see what was coming and he knew he was right, I would not call it narcissism because he was not. 

TC: No, he was not.
MPF: But it is something deep that he knew. He knew. Which is why I say, it is not prophet but he knew, he could see what was coming. So, his work ethic of constantly working and writing what he thought; maybe self-confidence, because he realized that he was valuable; and I think that is where we go back to my mother, that she made him feel that what he said had a value, had an importance. His willpower, the will, I have never seen an instinct to survive like this, I have never seen anything like this. Which is why I am saying he was so tough. So there was the self-confidence brought in by my mother, by knowing he was right; his will power of just concentrating and compartmentalizing and just ignoring it; and the number three, main thing, we laughed, we laughed so much! I am happy that he lived that long, that he witnessed people coming to him and say “of my gosh, you were right”, and been given the value and the recognition he deserved. He was born five years after the end of 1st World War in Hungary-Austria, just after the end of the Empire.

TC: What was his idea and consideration of how the world has changed in the course of all these years? 
MPF: He talked about it in a kind of in amazement. Not amazement at the changes, because he actually had, if you read some of his books, he predicts the internet and he predicts the high speed systems. So he was not surprised, because he had seen it coming, but he did say, “can you imagine that when I was born Franz Joseph had just been dethroned”, and we talked about childhood memories and his childhood memories is going into his grandfather’s carriage. Talking about what was fun for him when he was a little boy, so that means 1929-1930, was sitting in the carriage in the barn, the carriage was like having a car in those days, and imagining that he was traveling the world. When he was little and when they asked him what do you want to be. he would say. “a foreigner, a stranger, a traveller”. Is not it interesting? So, I think he looked at it not in amazement, in a sense of “oh my gosh” because he predicted it, but he looked at it in, “that’s amazing, look what I have seen”. He flew in airplanes in 1949, that was fairly early.

TC: Very costly compared to now.
MPF: Yes, it was really something very big. He went to France by airplane from Israel. When he was a practicing architect in Israel, he made a very good living. It was probably the only time in his life he made a very good living, when he was a practicing architect. He made a very good living, when he was a practicing architect.

TC: So strange to hear this. Because of course when we think about your father for us, he is a very successful man. 
MPF: He was a very successful man, but he was not a financially successful man. First he was not interested in monetarizing his work, his ideas, he was not about making money. It would have been nice to make a nice living, but you cannot have it. And that’s where my mother’s support was essential, she allowed him to continue his research and study in a way that was not subjected to any type of authority or pressure. 
What else could I tell you? Oh, I have a story to tell you! When I was little, my parents always took me everywhere with them, so we were always a three people unite. So my father would be invited somewhere, and he would get invited either a business class ticket or a full price ticket, and my parents would transform that full price ticket into three charter tickets. So I went to India when I was eleven years old in 1972 with my parents with that system: he was invited to India with a full price ticket and he transformed it into a charter, and I remember we went from Paris, Rome, Athens, Teheran, Delhi. That’s to tell you the charters, it was just like hopping. And somebody has commented that the fact that we travelled so much made it, in those days, in a very luxury lifestyle, and he said, “no no no we are Prolétaire de Lux”.

Few weeks later….

MPF: Since we talked, I thought about what I found really relevant with my father and that might be helpful for young people to hear and for everybody to hear. The first thing is, I think my father was really a man of the 60s of the post war era. When there was a wave of optimism, of hope and of trust in humanity. After the World Wars and after what have happened, I think he really, like that generation, saw the world as full of possibilities and as a chance for people to do better, to be better. What I think is interesting with my father is that he stayed a man of the 60s, not in a hippy way at all, but in his optimism and his hope, and his positive outlook on the world. Even though he announced climate change, he did not announce it but he saw it coming, he saw refugee crisis coming, he saw those things happening, but he did not see it in a negative way, he saw it as something that humanity could solve, and if it had solutions and that’s what he spent his life on, is finding solutions for those crises that he foresaw.
I think that one thing that is really important with him is his continued optimism, continued search for solutions with the belief that solutions could be found and could be applied, rather than either bitter or angry or lost illusion type of attitude, he never lost his illusion if you want.
The second thing that I think  I find really interesting about my father, is that, even though the causes that he championed — such as freedom of choices in architecture, individuality, the need to endeavour to change social structures, to allow more freedom to all, his search for education and to educate all about what was coming, such as climate change, such as refugees — all those causes can be seen as politically charged nowadays. What I think is amazing with my father is that he never made it a political fight, he was never about partisanship, he was about enlightening, it was about educating, it was about sharing ideas, about what could be solved, but he never charged it politically. Obviously we know what his conviction were politically, but he never ever alluded to those. Even though you read his books, you read his theories and his use, you know what his politically views are, but he never even made it political and I think this is admirable specially now when everything is so completely politically charged, it is either right or wrong, left or right there is no simple humanity like he had. He had just a deep humanity without any political affiliation, and I think this is very admirable.

The project “Inside Yona Friedman’s ceramic city” is the result of a collaboration between


With the support of

Editing: Giulia Macchiarella

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